Get in the Book
November 2, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is All Saints’ Sunday. Today we give thanks to God for all the saints – living and dead – who make up the great communion of saints – or the church in heaven and on earth. This glory, however, doesn’t keep us from asking: How does one become a saint?
The Book of Life
Well, we don’t become saints by being morally pure (Mark 10:18), naturally brilliant (Matthew 11:25), or politically effective (John 18:36). As much as we would like to be at least the last two of these, this is not how we become saints. We rather become saints by having our names in the book of life (Revelation 21:27).
Now how does that happen? Do we have to stand in line and sign in? Is that how we get our names written in the book of life – by waiting in line and signing in, like some sort of mystery guest? No, we are told that we get in the book of life when another writes down our name for us! So this isn’t something we can do for ourselves – getting our names in the book of life. No, it has to be written down for us by another – and that is the risen Christ himself.
So how do we get the risen Christ to do that? This is no small matter that we can easily brush aside and then get on to the more important stuff of our presidential election this coming Tuesday. No, getting into this book of life is tops. For if our names aren’t written down there, then our hind-ends will end up in the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15), where we will be punished in hell for all of eternity. This is not a pleasant prospect. All of us would much rather wish for something far more grand – we would rather be saints who receive blessings like those listed in Matthew 5:1-11.
So how do we get Jesus to write down our names in the book of life? We desperately want to know – now that we’ve heard about the lake of fire! Well, we don’t have to flail around long looking for an answer. This is because Revelation 3:2-5 holds it for us:
The risen Christ said.... to the angel of the church in
Repentance therefore is the key – the pen, if you will – that writes our names down in the book of life. Repent and you’ll be worthy. Repent and Christ will write your name in the book of life. Repent and Christ will present you blameless before God the Father in heaven. But there’s a problem here: And that is we don’t like to repent! And because of that we don’t do it – or not very well, at least. This is because, as Martin Luther pointed out, when we repent we have to admit that God is right (Luther’s Works 51:318) and we are wrong (LW 25:234; 51:22). But this grates against our pride. No wonder then that repentance is so rare (LW 32:35).
Luther in his Smalcald Articles (1537) goes on to say that repentance is utterly essential even though we refuse to do it, being “false penitents” who think repenting once is enough, or “false saints” who think there’s no need for it in the first place [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 308]. Repentance is so difficult because of these false views of it that we harbor against it. This requirement of repentance (LW 12:333), then, looks like a deal-breaker since we refuse to practice it properly. Does this then leave us with our hind-ends burning in that lake of fire?
Strengthen What Remains
No, that would be to give repentance too much importance. That would mean we were trusting in our very repentance – something we should never do (LW 36:85) – rather than simply using it. That would make it look like we were determining whether our names were in the book of life. But that is not what Scripture teaches. It instead says that Jesus does the writing down for us.
So we need to look elsewhere – and that’s precisely what Revelation 3 does. It tells us to “strengthen what remains.” That is to say, we need to stand on what’s certain. And what is that? Revelation 1:18 gives us what is certain and can be counted on:
The risen Christ said: “Fear not,... I am the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell.”
Fear not! – that’s right. Fear not because you can count on the risen Christ. Ditch your doubts and hesitations – and strengthen what remains. Dwell on Christ’s words that they may dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16). Remember what he said, that he’s alive, that he died for us, that he has the keys of heaven and hell. None of these assertions are uncertain. All of them are guaranteed.
Christ’s Certain Work
They are sure because they do not depend on us for their reality or efficacy. On the cross Christ cries out at the moment of his death: “It is finished” (John 19:30; see also my “Consummatum Est,” Logia, Reformation 2002). His death therefore is final. It puts an end to the wrath of God for all who believe in him (John 3:36; Romans 5:9). That is certain. Nothing can reverse this because the death has occurred. “Christ was slain and by his blood he ransomed us for God” (Revelation 5:9). Time cannot go backwards, reverse itself and undo this crucifixion (Hebrews 9:27). It’s fixed forever. And also, nothing can change God’s mind – that this sacrificial death is “fragrant” or pleasing to him (Ephesians 5:2; John 10:17). God won’t later say that Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t good enough – or even too good for us – thereby leaving us in the lurch once again. No, it is certain for all times and places (LW 14:290). By his death Christ then has freed us from “sin, death, God’s wrath, the devil, hell, and eternal damnation” (LW 23:404). We desperately need this sacrifice – and also to believe in it (John 3:16; Romans 3:25) – because we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves (John 8:34; Romans 6:20-21, 7:24). Left to our own devices, we would surely end up in hell – that place of torment that lasts forever (Luke 16:23, 28).
So do not fear. Christ is here today. Even though your repentance may waver a bit or be tinged with a modicum of irresolution, do not fear. Christ is here to save you today (2 Corinthians 6:2). Revelation 3:20 has given this assurance a classic formulation:
And the Risen Christ said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him....”
Just think of it: Christ is here for us, knocking at the doors of our lives. William Holman Hunt’s 1853 classic painting of this scene has emblazoned its image in our mind’s eye. There he stands knocking – we can see him doing it. And he is there even if we haven’t invited him over (Isaiah 65:1; Romans 3:11). He comes anyway, even if we’re running away from him – as were Jonah and Paul of old (Jonah 1:3; Acts 9:3-6). This is because his love for us is not based on us being lovable and thereby attracting him, but on God simply being loving (1 John 4:10; LW 30:301, 31:57).
So we mustn’t misconstrue this Gospel picture of Christ knocking at the door. We must be careful not to make it hinge on our opening of the door. For it simply doesn’t hinge on that – and not by a long shot. The key lies elsewhere. For just think what would happen if we opened the door and he wasn’t there? Or if he decided to leave once we had finally opened up to him. What then?
But you might say it flips around the other way as well. And so we must also ask what would happen if we didn’t open up? Could we keep Christ away forever? Our impenitence seems to suggest that (Psalm 51:17; Luke 13:3; 2 Timothy 2:12; 1 John 1:9 and also my “Only the Remorse of Judas,” The Bride of Christ, Pascha 1995). But that wasn’t the case with Jonah or Paul. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) pursues this same point, putting it this way [Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Paper, eds. H. V. Hong, E. H. Hong (1967-1978) 5:5313]:
If Christ is to come and live in me, it will have to be according to the Gospel [John 20:19, 26] [where] Christ enters through closed doors.
Kierkegaard believed opening up to Christ is so difficult because it involves dying to the world (Galatians 6:14) – something which we run away from (Luke 12:19). So he thought we should pray: “O God,... grab me, get hold of me – I beseech you to do it – if salvation depends on [me dying to the world]” (Journals, 4:4532).
Christ Enters to Abide
So if we think our repenting is what will get Christ to visit us and bless us – we are mistaken – necessary though repenting may be. For that can’t be the case since salvation is a gift – and not something we do (Ephesians 2:8). As sinners we could never bring about the holiness of salvation. This is because we are deeply flawed creatures. We have fallen from our paradisiacal glory (Romans 3::23). Like Seth of old, we’re no longer born with the image of God – instead we are strapped with the likeness and image of Adam (Genesis 5:1-3). In the Lutheran confessions we nail down this collapse, with six powerfully condemning adjectives:
Original sin in human nature... replaces the lost image of God in man with a deep, wicked, abominable, bottomless, inscrutable, and inexpressible corruption of his entire nature.... [For] by nature every one of us inherits from Adam a heart, sensation, and mind-set which, in its highest powers and in the light of reason, is by nature diametrically opposed to God (BC, p. 510).
That deep, wicked, abominable, bottomless, inscrutable and inexpressible corruption keeps us from saving ourselves by way of some pure repentance. Struggle though we may to repent as we should, we worry if we’ve done enough of it and in the right way.
Because of that anxiety, Luther once exclaimed regarding the deep and abiding truth of our predicament:
Who can say that his repentance is sufficient before God? Not our own repentance; but Christ himself with his suffering must be our repentance and satisfaction before God (LW 40:345).
But how can this be, we ask?! Isn’t our repenting actually ours? If so, then how can another do it for us? Well, if that repentance is made to double for satisfying the wrath of God as well, then it can only be done by Christ himself (BC, p. 414). But if it’s left alone to be what it should be – namely the means by which we “recognize and accept,” but not activate or generate, God’s forgiveness, then it’s what we can do (BC, p. 432). But even then it still remains parasitic on God’s grace, for where does the contrition come from that makes us repent (Psalm 51:17)? That contrition or shame is certainly not of our own making. Just as David’s shame came from Nathan’s attack (2 Samuel 12:13), and Paul’s shame came from his altercation with the risen Christ (Acts 22:10), so too our contrition and shame can only come from what’s thrown before us (Luke 16:16; Acts 14:22; Revelation 3:19). No wonder, then, that we teach that “faith in Christ.... does not come without a great battle in the human heart” (BC, p. 154). And the same goes for repentance, since it grows together with faith (BC, p. 161)
So thank God for the savior Christ Jesus – for his sacrifice unto death, and the faith we’ve been given to love him, entrust our lives to him, learn from him and follow him. And then come and receive him this day. You who have heard his word – come and receive him in, with, and under the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper – for he is truly present in this Holy Eucharist. Come and eat for in this sacrament is life (John 6:53) – for “Christ’s body can never be an unfruitful, vain thing, impotent and useless” (BC, p. 449). That is because when we receive the crucified and risen Christ this way, he “abides” in us (John 6:56). If you are at all worried about Christ entering in when you open the door, then fear no more. Through this holy meal he will most certainly abide with you – just as the bread and wine clearly and certainly enter into you when you receive them – so will Christ do the same through those same elements. “Here will shall take our stand” (BC, p. 448).
Don’t Mess With the Text
And then when you leave this place do good works in Christ’s name. Do them knowing that faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26). Do them knowing with Luther that
we suffer [so that] this excellent treasure [of the gospel] which we have may not merely make us sleepy and secure. We see so many people, unfortunately it is all too common, so misusing the gospel that it is a sin and a shame, as if now... they have been so liberated by the gospel that there is no further need to do anything, give anything, or suffer anything (LW 51:207).
Against this misuse which arises from undisciplined and unjustifiable self-confidence, the Lutheran confessions teach that
in true conversion there must be a change, there must be new activities and emotions in the intellect, will, and heart, so that the heart learns to know sin, to fear the wrath of God, to turn from sin, to understand and accept the promise of grace in Christ, to have good spiritual thoughts, Christian intentions, and diligence, and to fight against the flesh (BC, pp. 534-535).
So trusting in Christ is not enough. We must also seek out a life of obedience to our heavenly Father (Matthew 7:21).
One way to do that is to regard his Holy Word, “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). So regarded, we shouldn’t add or take away anything from the Holy Book (Revelation 22:18-19). To do so would be to “tamper” with it and twist it into saying something contrary to its expressed wishes (2 Corinthians 4:2). This is tempting because God’s Word offends us (John 6:60-61). In order to escape that bind, we then twist it around to say something more pleasing to our ear (2 Timothy 4:3). But that gets us nowhere – even though its promise is alluring. It gets us nowhere because only the word as it stands “has eternal life” for us (John 6:68).
Let us then call on the Lord to fill us with wisdom and power that we might simply “hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). Let us be done with all fancy, imaginative interpretations whereby we water down what the Bible gives us and also expects from us (2 Peter 1:20; Acts 17:29). What it gives us is guidance for righteous living now and hope for heavenly glory after we die. That guidance for now hinges on self-denial (Luke 9:23). Without it we cannot walk in righteousness. With it we can love God and serve the neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). And the hope that we have for the life to come is based on faith in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (John 3:16; Romans 4:25; Hebrews 9:15, 26). In those acts Christ opens up heaven for all believers (Hebrews 10:19-25). This means that when we die we will not be sent to hell – that place of torment where unredeemed sinners suffer forever (Luke 16:23, 28). Instead, we will enjoy all of eternity in the new life of heaven where all sin, death and suffering will be wiped away (Romans 8:23; Revelation 21:4). And this life only comes to us through faith in Jesus (Acts 4:12, 13:46). These gifts from God can enrage us (1 Corinthians 1:18). But that doesn’t make them any less true – even though the wicked say just that.
And the same can be said for what God’s Word expects from us who believe in Christ. It says, for example, that we shouldn’t love the world or be conformed to its ways (John 15:18-19; 1 John 2:15; Romans 12:2). It says we should give thanks for whatever happens to us and always be content (Ephesians 5:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; Philippians 4:11). It says we should love our enemies and think better of others than ourselves (Mathew 5:44; Philippians 2:3). It says we should rebuke those who sin against us (Luke 17:3). It says we should abstain from sexual promiscuity (1 Thessalonians 4:3). It says we should pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It says we should give ten percent of all our income to the church (Deuteronomy 14:22; Malachi 3:8-10; Matthew 23:23). It says we should fast – cutting back on the food we especially like (Joel 2:15; Matthew 6:16-18). It says we should worship the Lord in the congregation on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). It says we should study God’s Word daily (Acts 17:11). It says we should take care of the earth (Genesis 2:15, 3:17-19). And so on.
Now while these tasks may be daunting, we should not therefore recoil back from them, and look for another way to live. No, we should instead call upon the Lord for help. And he will surely hear our prayer and answer us for he wants you to grow in faith and love. The laborers in his kingdom, after all, are few, and so he’ll want to strengthen us for the work at hand (Luke 10:2). And all this matters because what God wants most of all for us, is to see to it, that our names are written in the book of life. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)